This is a guest post by Tyler Cary. Tyler Cary is a New Scot from Wyoming. He moved to Scotland with his family in 2016 and has a masters in global environmental politics from the University of Edinburgh. Previously a member of the Scottish Greens, he is currently a member of Edinburgh Central SNP.
Let’s talk about rhetoric! Following the impromptu protest in May, which shut down one of two dawn raids in Glasgow where police were detaining asylum seekers, the language of “first safe country” should be under extreme scrutiny. The protest in Glasgow showed a level of community solidarity which should be exemplary of what “safe” means. When people proclaim that those seeking asylum in their neighbourhood are “their neighbours” and are “safe” in that community, “safe” gains meaning. But what does “first safe country” mean?
Firstly, the idea that an asylum seeker should settle or begin the process of applying for asylum in the “first safe country” places on literally every other country which an asylum seeker passes through the burden of being the country in which they “should have” sought asylum. In essence, this is a rhetorical phrase that allows the general population of the U.K. to identify the countries they consider safe and assume that those seeking asylum should have stayed in one of those countries because it was safe. This also allows the government to paint those who bravely cross the English Channel as asylum shoppers or as seeking the country in which they would most prefer to live, as though asylum locations are in a catalogue of preferred places to go for holiday.
Secondly, there is no language within any human rights or refugee rights legislation, agreements, or treaties that burden an asylum seeker to seek asylum within any specific country. Better put, there is no such thing as a “first safe country.” Even if there were such a thing, it begs the question as to which countries should be considered “safe” under this language. Those who found themselves in what was described as the “Calais Jungle” in France wouldn’t have called that a safe place in which to claim asylum.
Thirdly and lastly, the language of “first safe country” has created an impression even among my own friends who are deeply concerned about human rights that this is how asylum claims “should” work. This phrase, repeated ad nauseam by the current government under the immigration policies of Priti Patel, who once floated the idea of settling asylum seekers on an island off of the western coast of Africa, has tricked well-meaning people into adopting an awful and dehumanising notion of where asylum seekers belong.
Now that enough people have been tricked into believing that this “first safe” line is how asylum claims actually work, the UK government appears to be emboldened to take action without fear of public blowback. It is unreasonable to expect that the general population would be familiar with refugee rights set in international law, so they count on a level of ignorance regarding these areas within the general public to push this big lie of where asylum seekers should have stayed. The government actually relies on the fact that most people aren’t going to read hundreds of pages of refugee rights documents and agreements to refute this line.
Apparently, the Tory government from Westminster wildly underestimated the level of solidarity they would encounter in Glasgow. Public blowback there was swift and fierce enough to send the government packing; one grateful asylum seeker’s words in an interview following the protest express gratitude far greater than I can explain.
As the idea of “first safe country” holds no weight in existing international laws or agreements for the rights of asylum seekers, it should be viewed for what it is: an insidious phrase designed to strip away the rights of those seeking asylum within U.K. borders, andgranting the government a sense that they can act with impunity when violating the rights of our fellow human beings. It is a phrase which ensures that those seeking asylum are seen as making invalid claims, regardless of the very human rights language so clearly laid out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—along with many other asylum agreements and international laws and treaties—to which the U.K. is a signatory nation.
Those seeking asylum in the U.K. generally have two routes to receive leave to remain within U.K. borders. The first of these is what we all think of when a person who meets the refugee criteria seeks asylum under U.K. guidelines, explained by the Refugee Council. Those who wish to seek asylum within the U.K. face an uphill battle from the moment they arrive within U.K. borders. The idea that they should have remained within the borders of the “first safe country” places an undue burden upon them to prove an extra layer of validity to their claim. This language places a burden on the asylum seeker when appealing to the U.K. government, and a further burden on them as they now must prove the validity of their claim to their fellow neighbours who may or may not believe that the idea of “first safe” is valid, and that that’s where they should have stayed put in this mysterious “safe country”.
I would ask anyone reading this to consider which country they think of when they hear “first safe” and ask several people which country comes to mind and see if they have a difference of opinion as to which country this would be. The notion of “first safe” is nothing more than some hypothetical wonderland where asylum seekers are safe. It would also be worth placing yourself in the shoes of those who have travelled so far in the hopes of finding a new home, and wondering how bad your country would have to become before you were willing to abandon everything you own except what you and your family can carry while boarding a barge which could sink or be deliberately sunk.
Then consider that after you have made this journey, your freedoms, wellbeing, and life are now at the mercy of the nation in which you have landed. Would you feel as though this is the “first safe country”, or would you continue along a series of routes taken by the world’s most desperate and vulnerable people in search of the one thing that all people seek above others, safety in person and for your family? And the likelihood that you have reached a home where your neighbours will pour into the streets and demand that the people carrying out a dawn raid release you and get tae f*** out of the neighbourhood, chanting to leave their neighbours and friends alone.